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Medical groups say leave age of consent alone

Senators ambivalent toward health professionals

The Senate’s legal affairs committee is whipping through witness testimony on age of consent at an accelerated pace — with hearings all day, everyday. If they don’t jam the calendar, they risk missing the Mar 1 deadline set by the House of Commons to pass the omnibus crime bill, which could trigger a federal election.

That means each presenter is slated into a crowded schedule, and it also means that briefs compete for attention on the desks of Senators in growing slush piles.

And while all political parties appear to have already given their marching orders pass the bill and pass it quickly groups opposed to raising the age of consent remain undeterred.

On Feb 20, it was health associations that spoke against the bill. Dr John Lamont is the president of the Canadian Federation for Sexual Health.

“The ability to give informed consent isn’t age related at all,” says Lamont. “In my clinical practice, I’ve met 12 year olds that are capable of giving informed consent and I’ve met 20 and 30 year olds who I’ve struggled with their ability to give informed consent.”

Lamont spoke of the “unintended consequences” of raising the age of consent. Young people do not seek out sexual health services if they don’t believe information they give will be treated confidentially, he says. By raising the age of consent, doctors and social workers could be charged for failing to report a teen in a consensual relationship with an older partner as a victim of child abuse.

Raising the age of consent puts teens at risk rather than protecting them, unless the bill were amended to ensure confidentiality for teens accessing services, Lamont says. He also suggested earmarking more cash for sexual education “that starts young and is age appropriate” and striking down the law that sets a separate age of consent for anal sex at 18.

“There’s no logical or medical reason to treat one type of sexual activity differently than the others,” he says.

Some of Lamont’s concerns were echoed by Robert Kissner, a director of the Canadian Association of Social Workers. He suggests that raising the age of consent will put some young people at greater risk.

“When we blend legislation aimed at relationships with children under the age of 13 with relationships under 16,” he says, “the problem is that we potentially create a greater risk for children 13 or younger.”

“You’re going to lose conceptual clarity,” he says.

He suggested that Parliamentarians instead direct their attention to making sure young people complete high school and addressing poverty ? two social factors that keep youth from being vulnerable in the first place.

The senators listened carefully to the pair flanked by the Canadian AIDS Society’s Nichole Downer but no senator openly mused about suggesting changes to the bill.

Two Conservative senators Consiglio Di Nino and Terry Stratton had already made up their minds. Di Nino spoke about “parental concerns.”

“It was because of the loud voices of many, many Canadians that C-22 which made its way into C-2 was introduced,” he says.

But James Cowan, a Liberal senator from Nova Scotia, summed up the room’s ambivalence.

“I’m struggling with this a bit because on the one hand I think raising the age of consent is a good thing, but on the other hand I’m not really sure it gets at the root of the problem,” he says.

Able to appreciate the problems C-2 will cause for young people but lacking the political will to amend it, the Senate will plough through hearings at least until Feb 25.